Orthodox Easter

What does a Swiss probably think of when he hears the word Easter? Coloured eggs, chocolate bunnies, a lot of Easter related commercials, Easter nests for the children, perhaps a meal with the family?

If you go to Greece with these expectations maybe you’ll be as surprised as I was that Easter and other religious feasts are quite different there.

For many people in Switzerland Easter is a beautiful feast at the beginning of spring but not as important as Christmas. Especially since Switzerland is quite secularized many people probably don’t know about the religious significance of Easter which is originally greater than the one of Christmas.

In Patras for example, a city influenced by the Italians, an exuberant, colourful carnival takes part which I visited and the atmosphere was truly crazy.

I was therefore curious to see how the Greeks celebrate Easter. In Greece, religion is still deeply rooted. Nevertheless, I awaited some similarity to our way of celebrating. Below I want to describe some facts about Easter that were more or less unfamiliar to me.

In the Greek Orthodox context Easter is proceeded by a long preparation time with various festivals, which culminates finally in the resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Before the Easter fast, the Apokriés take place, thus what is celebrated in Switzerland as Fasnacht. In Patras for example, a city influenced by the Italians, an exuberant, colourful carnival takes part which I visited and the atmosphere was truly crazy.

On the last day of the Apokriés, before the fast begins, huge amounts of meat are fried in consideration of the coming forty days. This came as unexpected to me, since I eat more or less the same throughout the year.

During this time, only vegetables and animals without blood, i.e. mussels and octopuses, are allowed. The restaurants offer alternative menus and even the canteen of the university always has a fasting menu in addition to the “normal” menu all year round – funnily enough, a real vegan or vegetarian menu is not offered and even when you search for vegan or vegetarian recipes in Greek on the internet you’ll be more successful when you search for “fasting recipes”.

Then people go to the beach or to the countryside to fly kites together which street vendors sell everywhere

On the first day of the fasting period – the “clean Monday” – even many people fast who don’t have much to do with religion. Then people go to the beach or to the countryside to fly kites together, which street vendors sell everywhere and you traditionally eat cod with garlic sauce, squid or halvas. This celebration remained  visible until summer because of all the crashed kites hanging in the trees everywhere 😊.

At the end of those forty days, most people fast especially during the “big week”, the Holy Week, where there are even stricter rules for fasting. All animal products and food prepared with oil would be taboo during this week.

On Good Friday processions representing the burial of Christ take place in many parishes. Traditionally, many people take part. I chose to take part to shock my liberal protestant perception of holidays a little bit. The streets were closed and thousands of people gathered around the church and lit each other’s candles. Inside the church the liturgy took place, after which the crowd passed several blocks chanting Orthodox songs and, accompanied by very slow, sad chimes of the church bells, proceeded to the main square of the neighborhood, where a sermon was held in public. To see religion in such a public manner was a truly unfamiliar experience to me.

Furthermore, Greek Easter and all the surrounding feasts are calculated according to a different method, which means that the Western Easter rarely coincides with the Orthodox Easter. I knew about those because I study Theology but in practice it felt very odd that my family was not at all celebrating at home when I was and vice versa.

What I didn’t do was eat majiritsa afterwards – a soup made of sheep guts.

In its significance, Orthodox Easter itself felt for me somehow as if our Christmas were combined with our Swiss national holiday: Around midnight one goes to the church (not necessarily into the church), where Easter mass is held, from where the Easter fire is distributed to all people and one waits until the bells strike twelve o’clock. Then one wishes to another “christos anesti” “Christ is risen” and the other one answers “alithos anesti” “he is truly risen”. As soon as the bells strike firecrackers are ignited everywhere and fireworks rise to the sky. The mass goes on and people are constantly walking in and out of the church. Afterwards everyone goes home and blacks a cross on the upper part of the doorframe with the candle to bless the house – so did I 😊 What I didn’t do was eat majiritsa afterwards – a soup made of sheep guts. The next day almost everyone spends his day with the family to roast a whole lamb or a goat together.

For the fact that Easter is celebrated so big, it is commercially much smaller: You don’t see Easter decoration or advertising with the Easter theme and Easter bunnies can rarely be seen in some confectioneries. Dyed eggs, which are symbolically only available in red, are strictly eaten after the resurrection.

For me as a resident of a Protestant canton, Greek Easter with its accompanying festivities was very unfamiliar – maybe more than it would be for someone from a Catholic part of the country. Even though a lot of the ceremonies and customs seem very strange to me, I appreciate them a lot because I felt how they give much more structure to the year and space for common spirituality and relaxation than our “secularized” holidays (with fewer days off) do. Somehow, I’m sad that I probably won’t be in Greece next Easter…

Severin Künzi

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